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It was twenty-five years ago nearly to the day, following the tragic early September 1995 rape of an Okinawan school girl in Kin Village, Okinawa Prefecture, by three U.S. servicemen — two Marines and a Navy medic — that the Commander-in-Chief U.S. Pacific Command made an inexcusable remark during a trip to Washington, D.C. that cost him his career.

At the end of a not-for-attribution breakfast meeting with Pentagon reporters on Nov. 17, Adm. Richard Macke said, “I think that [the rape] was absolutely stupid. For the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl.”

In other words, the insensitive comment not only downplayed the rape — especially the impact on the victim and the depravity of the act of violence — but endorsed prostitution, which almost always involves organized crime, human trafficking, and other illegal, immoral, and anti-social activities.

The outcry was immediate, affecting the two capitals as well as the military commands in Hawaii and Okinawa.

There is no clear timeline about what happened next but certain things are known.

National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, a former State Department and White House official with experience in Asia, became aware of the remarks and spoke with Deputy Defense Secretary John White and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Owens, to request more information. When asked for a response, the White House press secretary, Michael McCurry, stated, “if correctly reported, these are not comments that are going to [go] down well” with the president.

Adm. Macke was “very open with the media,” according to one former Navy staff officer I interviewed. “It had never burned him before. That incident changed our headquarters’ entire approach to dealing with the media.”

Macke, at the same time, was known to be “brash, bordering on arrogant” with subordinates, according to reporting at the time, and no doubt Owens, under whom Macke had recently served as director of the Joint Staff, was aware of this as well. One Marine staff officer in Hawaii who worked in a subordinate command and watched the admiral in action described him as “snide and sarcastic, a genuinely flawed leader.”

Still, Macke felt the need to call the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to speak with the Ambassador to Japan (and former Vice President of the United States) Walter Mondale. As the ambassador was not in Tokyo at the time, Deputy Chief of Mission Rust Deming, whose father had served as consul general in Okinawa in the 1950s, took the call. To Macke’s question about the harm caused by his remarks, Deming explained that “considerable damage” had been done but that he “could not assess the long-term impact yet.” Macke asked if he should resign, but Deming responded he was not in the position “to make such a call.” Deming relayed the conversation to the ambassador, either by telephone or in person, afterwards.

Mondale, a lawyer by training, subsequently spoke with Secretary of Defense William Perry, who had served in early postwar Okinawa. He accurately warned that the outcry in Japan, and especially in its southwestern-most prefecture of Okinawa, would be severe. He had been at the forefront of dealing with the aftermath of the rape incident and the calls by the Japanese government to address Okinawa’s concerns, having just returned earlier that month from Okinawa according to his 2010 memoirs, “The Good Fight.” The result was the establishment, on Nov. 2, of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa with a one-year mandate to “reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa and thus strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, who had been under attack himself for a less-than-forthcoming response to the rape incident and who was a strong proponent of SACO, was incredulous about Macke’s reported remarks: “I absolutely cannot believe this statement.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman also added that the admiral’s comments “are most inappropriate in view of the terrible incident that took place in Okinawa.”

They were not the only ones angry. Women’s groups in Okinawa were livid. Fumiko Maeda, who headed a national women’s group chapter there, said, “The remarks are unforgivable. Each time we have swallowed our anger and sorrow, but we can’t stand it anymore.” The well-known Naha City assemblywoman, Suzuyo Takazato, pointed out that the remarks were “not just a problem caused by three accused servicemen but a fundamental problem involving the U.S. military.”

Hours after his comments, Macke issued a semiapology: “I made a serious mistake this morning. My recent comment as the result of my frustration over the stupidity of this heinous crime against the young lady. I regret any misunderstanding my comment may have caused.”

But the damage had already been done. Perry met with Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jeremy Boorda to hear their opinions and explain he was going to ask for Macke’s resignation. Perry then spoke with the president and recommended that Macke be made to retire, to which Clinton agreed.

Perry then spoke with Macke, who recognized the decision was Perry’s but did not think his comments were going to be a problem for him in Japan, according to one published account. However, Perry was firm. “We decided,” the defense secretary said in a statement that evening, “that his lapse of judgment was so serious that he would be unable to perform effectively his duties as commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific. As a result, Adm. Macke offered to retire, and I accepted his early retirement.”

This quick handling was important. Vice President Al Gore was en route to Japan at that exact moment to attend on Clinton’s behalf the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Osaka as the president was engaged in a budget standoff with Congress in Washington. Macke’s comments were bound to come up in a meeting between Gore and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama scheduled for the next day. The U.S. side would have to demonstrate it took the situation seriously.

The date for Macke’s retirement was not set at that point, but he stepped down from PACOM at the end of January 1996. Because of the publicity, his firing is seen as a result of the incident — and it was. But Macke also had a host of other problems, including accusations of power harassment, the discovery of an extramarital sexual relationship with this female Marine aide, which understandably broke numerous rules in the military, and personal use of military aircraft. It was, in other words, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As many readers may have seen or experienced themselves, quite often, when a supposed leader is found to have done something terribly wrong, it is usually not a simple one-time indiscretion, but rather part of a larger pattern of misbehavior.

Military leaders aren’t perfect, but they are expected to be better than the rest. The civilian leadership responded quickly and appropriately, which was good, but they unfortunately had overlooked or ignored many of the warning signs to date. The admiral had been seen for a long time as someone who “poisoned everything… toxic,” said one officer. A “last minute fill (for the PACOM position),” he was, according to this same officer, an example of a “bad person being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” It was almost as if this officer were saying Macke should have never made it that far.

Indeed, the Navy at the time was beset with a lot of leadership problems relating to assault of women, insensitivity, gender discrimination, and inappropriate behavior. The 1991 Tailhook Scandal was the most famous, but this too, had been a problem long in the making.

But it was not only Macke who had taken the rape incident lightly. The U.S. Marine Corps public affairs officer in Okinawa at the time said internally, according to officials who worked with him, that “it was just another rape.”

It most certainly was not. It fundamentally changed the fabric of U.S.-Japan-Okinawa relations afterward. Organizations need leaders who set the tone, not those who reflect its worst tendencies.

 

Robert D. Eldridge is author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” (Routledge, 2001) and other works on Okinawa and U.S.-Japan relations. He served as the political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa from 2009 to 2015.

 

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